'Poor man's verdict' for Gandhi rule leaves India in shock

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The Independent Online

The day after India's stunning political reversal, in which voters ousted the ruling BJP from power, even the 43C temperatures could not stifle the air of amazement in New Delhi.

The day after India's stunning political reversal, in which voters ousted the ruling BJP from power, even the 43C temperatures could not stifle the air of amazement in New Delhi.

"Shock and awesome", trumpeted the banner headline in the Hindustan Times, and the Asian Age newspaper said, "Topsy Turns Turvy".

As the defeated Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee packed his bags at his lavish colonial residence, the opposition Congress Party gathered its allies and prepared to create a government for the first time in eight years. It is being called the biggest political upset since India's independence, one that no opinion poll predicted.

"All our assessments have gone wrong, sir," the BJP President, Venkaiah Naidu, said at a news conference today. "These results were not expected by anybody in the country."

The result has left not only the BJP, but analysts and the media scratching their heads about what went wrong. The answer most come up with is that they did not listen to the rural poor. The Hindu nationalist BJP ran its campaign on a "Shining India" plank, touting India's soaring economic growth mostly due to a good monsoon year.

But hundreds of thousands of India's farmers and labourers clearly did not agree that the BJP's rule meant growth and stability for all. That is why the Congress win is being called a poor man's verdict.

"See, the middle class certainly feels good, and for them India is shining," Kalpana Sharma, the author says. "The rest of India, 800 million of them, for them India is not shining. And for at least 400 million it's like despair because they have been forgotten."

Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the Congress Party, made sure to capitalise on that despair as she travelled thousands of miles across India. Today, Mrs Gandhi held a hectic round of meetings to appease the unease of many of her political colleagues about her leadership.

Mrs Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of the former Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, is a default member of India's most famous political dynasty who led her party to its worst electoral defeat in 1999, when the BJP swept to power. The BJP spearheaded a campaign against her foreign origin, saying her Italian birth makes her incapable of becoming prime minister.

Despite what Congress leaders call a clear mandate for Mrs Gandhi's leadership, the campaign continues to plague her. But who will become India's next Prime Minister? Today, Mrs Gandhi met a former Congress ally who split from the party, saying he could not accept a foreign-born citizen as prime minister of India. Congress will elect its parliamentary leader tomorrow, a post she now holds. The meeting will decide who is likely to be Prime Minister.

Yesterday's 5 per cent plunge on the Bombay Stock Exchange pointed to fears that the Congress-led coalition will slow the BJP's economic reforms that include privatisations and elimination of some guaranteed government jobs. Those fears come from Congress's key allies in any new government: the Left parties, especially the Communist Party of India. The Left gained a critical bloc of more than 60 seats in Parliament, their highest score since Independence.

The Congress and the Left are scrambling to prove they will not oppose reforms considered essential to India's economic progress. But Communist leaders have said they are against many of the bullish BJP-led privatisations of India's state firms. It was enough to send the markets crashing. But that does not matter to rural India, where there is a tenuous hope that the mandate given to the Congress Party will improve their lives.

In Orbassano, the small Italian Alpine town where Sonia Gandhi went to school, locals are waking up to the achievement of their most famous compatriot. She left for India more than 35 years ago and became an Indian citizen in 1983. She returned home only rarely.

Mrs Gandhi, 57, was born Sonia Maino in this town of 22,000 people outside Turin. Her father was a building contractor. Locals think of her with great pride. "She was very beautiful," said 55-year-old Liliana Paviolo, who was at Mrs Gandhi's private Roman Catholic school. "She stood out from the others." Her entire family was modest, Mrs Paviolo added. "They are very normal, very down-to-earth people, who talked to everyone."

She went to India as the 21-year-old bride of Rajiv Gandhi, who was elected prime minister in 1984 and assassinated in 1991. Years later, his wife entered politics and now appears likely to become India's first foreign-born prime minister.